Netflix has had a shaky start in the world of film production. Despite finding success with many of its original TV series, the media giant has yet to release an original feature-length project to any kind of universal acclaim. Of course, critical backlash means nothing as long as people continue to consume your product, as Adam Sandler incessantly proves – The Ridiculous Six and The Do Over racked up half a billion streams between them, in spite of their impressive 0% and 5% scores on Rotten Tomatoes. We’ll leave the discussion about how scrupulous Netflix’s recommendation and autoplay features are for another time… At the Cannes Film Festival, there were boos aimed at the Netflix logo during its most recent film ‘Okja’. What is clear is that new media is going to have to go above and beyond to convince the industry that they deserve a place at the table.
The films of Bong Joon-Ho often feature large doses of social commentary, and ‘Okja’ is no different. Many have even dismissed this film as ‘vegetarian propaganda’ due to the obvious vilification of factory farming, but I think it is as much about corporate branding and the smiling face of exploitation. It succeeds in lampooning the rise of companies who want to convince you that they are your friend, that their decisions are made with genuine concern for the environment, or for the little-man. But beware! As soon as sustainable business hurts the bottom line, or starts to fall out of fashion, so will their interest in it. The Host (2006), one of the Korean director’s foreign language films, could be seen as a thematic predecessor with its warnings about environmental recklessness.
Tilda Swinton plays two roles as the twin oligarchs of a transnational agrochemical conglomerate (the name of which sounds suggestively similar to Monsanto), heirs after a long line of ‘psychopaths’. Viewers of Snowpiercer (2013) may be forgiven for confusing Swinton's characters...
Desperate to escape their legacy of ruthlessness, the twin sisters try to reinvent the company as a green pioneer, caring and conscious of its global impact. Their flagship project is the creation of genetically-engineered super-pigs which require less food and don’t excrete harmful methane. Okja is one of these pigs. Sent across the planet to be raised by Mija and her grandfather under traditional rural conditions in South Korea, Okja is to compete with her globe-trotting (pun intended) contemporaries after 10 years, in the Superpig Beauty Contest. But not if Paul Dano and his band of merry-madcaps have their say. They are tree-huggers, but probably wouldn’t actually hug a tree in case they accidentally squeezed too hard, or otherwise somehow offended it. ‘All food production is exploitative’ recites one stalwart member as he blacks out from hunger. Mija too, now inseparable from her porcine pal, resists the company’s attempts to reclaim the pig back to an uncertain future in the US.
In many ways, the characters in Okja reminded me of the larger-than-life eccentrics favoured by Wes Anderson. This works great if the overall tone is that of quirk and whimsy, but there is a trade-off when you’re going for genuine emotion. How can I believe in the conflict when the characters have hitherto been nothing but walking idiosyncrasies? Worst of the bunch is Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears to be channelling a coked-up Chris Packham. The idea of a washed-up wildlife presenter is fun, like some 70s rock star clambering to stay relevant, but when it is taken to the cringe-inducing endpoint it becomes tiresome. Again, his supposedly comical character grates when he starts to do genuinely dark things. Are we supposed to laugh at him, pity him, or despise him?
This film has a fairy-tale quality about it, and maybe the paper-thin characterization makes most sense through this lens. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) masterfully blends the brutality of life under Franco’s fascist regime with the innocence and imagination of a young girl. The surreal effect of this juxtaposition has come to be known as ‘magical realism’. Mija is already the most real and human character in Okja, perhaps focussing on her perspective would have made the exaggerated characters and black-and-white morality feel more natural.
Bong Joon-ho is an eclectic, imaginative director whom it is impossible to pigeon hole. With this latest movie, he has succeeded in spanning both genre and culture, playing with the expectations and conventions of his audiences. What I think he has failed to do is effectively manage the jolting shifts in tone, and the result is a film that feels less than the sum of its parts. Rather than any cinematic masterpiece, I think Okja will be viewed as a curio, to be discovered by lovers of high-concept cinema and near-future dystopian worldbuilding.